Two Northern Ireland fishing boats have been impounded by the Irish Navy
They were detained in Dundalk Bay on Tuesday for alleged breaches of fishing regulations. It follows the collapse of a gentleman’s agreement allowing vessels from NI and the Republic reciprocal access to each other’s inshore waters. MPs in Westminster have asked the UK government to explain why the two boats were impounded.
Conservative MP Iain Duncan-Smith said the move had happened “without a huge amount of justification” while Democratic Unionist Party MP Jim Shannon said he was “appalled”. “The fishing boats are very clearly British fishing boats, they were illegally seized in waters that are disputed, waters that belong to this great nation.”
A spokesman for the Irish Navy said the two trawlers had been escorted to Clogherhead by a fisheries protection vessel and handed over to police.
‘Evidence of hard border’
The Northern Ireland-registered boats, The Amity and The Boy Joseph
were fishing for crabs, lobsters and whelks. At present, Northern Ireland vessels are banned from fishing inside the Republic of Ireland’s six-mile limit. But the Republic’s fleet has not been excluded from Northern Ireland waters.
Fishing industry representatives have been complaining about the situation since the collapse of the so-called Voisinage Agreement in 2016. They say it is evidence there is already a “hard border” in the Irish Sea. The agreement collapsed after Irish fisherman challenged its legality in Dublin’s Supreme Court and it ruled in their favour. The Irish government promised to legislate to regularise the situation, but it has not yet done so. It has been claimed this is due to the fact it has now become a potential bargaining chip in wider Brexit fisheries negotiations.
The Voisinage Arrangement is an informal agreement which allows Ireland and Northern Ireland vessels reciprocal access to fish in the 0–6 nautical mile zone of each other’s territorial waters. The Arrangement predates Ireland and the UK joining the EU and was evidenced by an exchange of letters in 1964–65 between senior civil servants; Mr O’Sullivan in Dublin and Mr Bateman in Belfast. The letters are informal but indicate agreement on reciprocal access for vessels under 75ft (23 metres) and suggest that access should be limited to those vessels owned and operated by persons who reside permanently in Northern Ireland and Ireland. No legislative provisions were specifically adopted for the Voisinage Arrangement by either government.
On the 27 October 2016, four Irish fishermen brought a case before the Irish Supreme Court which challenged the legality of Northern Ireland vessels fishing for seed mussel in Irish territorial waters under Voisinage. The Supreme Court concluded that the Voisinage Arrangement was an informal gentlemen’s agreement which is insufficient to legally grant access to fish by foreign vessels in Irish waters. Mr Justice O’Donnell found that fishing constitutes exploitation of a natural resource under Article 10 of the Irish Constitution and therefore it must be provided for “by law, which must mean public legislation”. However, he also made clear that “there is no insuperable constitutional objection to making provision by law for such fishing”. As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, Northern Ireland vessels are no longer allowed to fish in the 0–6 nautical mile zone in Irish waters. Irish fishing vessels continue to benefit from access to fish in British waters under the terms of Voisinage.
Prawn trawlers from the Northern Ireland fleet favour the sheltered waters of Dundalk Bay in the winter. The collapse of the agreement has affected about 20 Northern Ireland registered boats that would traditionally have fished there.